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Home » Bar & Bat Mitzvah » To Watch Your Child Struggle by Alan Sufrin

To Watch Your Child Struggle by Alan Sufrin

No one wants to watch their child struggle. This is the greatest obstacle we Jewish educators of B’nai Mitzvah face, and we rarely – if ever – talk about it. The problem goes so wide and so deep, it blinds parents and educators alike to the original purposes of becoming a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah.  We do everything in our power, emotionally and even financially, to avoid it.

One of these main, original functions of coming of age in the Jewish community is absolving the parent of spiritual responsibility for the child, and placing said spiritual responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the 12 or 13 year-old. That’s the reason for the “Baruch shep’tarani” blessing a parent says upon the occasion of a child’s Bat- or Bar-Mitzvah.  This means we have to put ourselves in an extremely difficult place, emotionally and spiritually. This means we have to teach our kids to:

  • think critically about their own choices.
  • struggle with parts of their heritage, their being, they disagree with; not merely ignore it.
  • find trustworthy resources upon which they can rely for making decisions about their future.
  • understand what an informed Jewish decision is.
  • struggle with what it means to be a Jewish adult.

Because if we don’t teach them to struggle with themselves and with Judaism, they never will. The Jewish people need each of our students to be positively contributing Jewish adults, as do our own future generations, and struggling with it is integral to the development of a Jewish adult. Bat-/Bar-Mitzvah is the time that our tradition has set aside to begin that process.  But too often, we actively allow our kids to avoid taking part in the very struggle that the Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah rite was designed for.

To illustrate how ingrained this avoidance problem is, I’ll address two major symptoms.

  1. At least two chief rabbis of Jewish communities (the Satmar Rebbe and the Gerrer Rebbe) have issued halachic decrees limiting the expense and extravagance that their communities are allowed for celebratory parties such as Bar Mitzvahs. Of course it’s important to mark the occasion of a Bat- or Bar-Mitzvah; no one’s trying to take that away. But the people who take issue with parties that cost more than some homes and luxury Italian cars tend to see the parties themselves as the problem.  “Such extravagance distances us from the purpose of the celebration,” they might say.  Or even, “One-upsmanship creates undue burden on the community.”  But these chassidic rebbes – I really think they’re after something deeper. I think these rebbeim are trying to teach us a lesson about avoidance. The parties are just a symptom.
  1. And here’s another symptom: the way we teach our students to prepare for “the big day” marks an endpoint, when it should be a beginning. This is a HUGE topic, and I indeed expect another blogger or two to cover this, but as I said earlier, this is all JUST A SYMPTOM. Whether they’ve done their hours and hours of preparation or whether all they did was turn that critical 12 or 13, it’s all over in the morning.  She or he’ll have one less thing on their plate for them to focus on “more important” things. I put “more important” in quotes not to imply sarcasm, but rather to emphasize that if Bar-/Bat-Mitzvah education is seen as a means to an end, then yeah, soccer and homework really are more important.  But if Bat-/Bar-Mitzvah education is approached as preparation for a lifetime of what it means to be a responsible adult through a Jewish lens, then I really can’t think of anything more important.

The big parties and Torah readings are tools we use to avoid all this, because no one wants to watch their child struggle. Even when it’s for their child’s own benefit.

What will it take for us, as parents and educators of B’nai Mitzvah students, to be ready and willing to watch our kids struggle?

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2 Comments

  1. There are 2 sets of issues here and while this is an insightful piece, it is skipping over the important first set.

    The first question that needs to be asked is “Why is Judaism WORTH struggling over?” People only engage and struggle with things that they either find inherently worthy or someone compels them to struggle over.

    If families have not modeled or properly prepared their children to understand that being part of Am Yisrael (and I use that terms deliberately since our very name as a people means to “struggle with G-d) is worthy of their time and engagement, then it become an exercise in the latter with someone compelling them to do so and everyone loses.

    When children struggle with learning to ride a bike, we accept this as normal and fine and children continue to engage because they see bike reading as a pleasant and fulfilling experience that is worth learning.

    Fast forward a few years to dating and driving. Teens struggle with these things, but they keep at it because getting better at them is something that seems like it will bring them satisfaction.

    It should not surprise us if children don’t want to struggle with their Judaism in the course of bar mitzvah prep if their families have not laid the groundwork for why Judaism is worth struggling with.

    It is a separate set of issues if the family/community has effectively laid that groundwork (which would suggest that ideally the 1-2 years leading up to Bar Mitzvah are really neither a beginning or an end, but a MIDDLE) and the child has not been given opportunities to try and fail and struggle at stuff.

    This is a much more complicated issue with larger cultural forces at play as alluded to by the link to Wendy Mogel. Seeing struggle as a positive thing that should not be avoided is a much tougher mountain to conquer.

    but again, its irrelevant if we have not addressed the first challenge.

  2. […] I found myself resonating with some of the messages that Alan Sufrin and Patrick Aleph call for in their ideas about rethinking bar and bat mitzvah. Sufrin talks about […]

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